Okayafrica Exclusive: Diplo + Chief Boima Debate The Politics Of Tropical Bass
DJs Diplo and Chief Boima debate music & politics over (under) a slice of pizza
Okayafrica sat down recently with Diplo and Chief Boima--two leading lights of the movement/moment called tropical bass, global bass or global ghettotech (depending who you ask) to chop it up in earnest about the politics of dance music in 2012. If you’re unfamiliar with the names, Wesley “Diplo” Pentz is best known these days as the man behind Major Lazer, as well as the producer of hits for M.I.A. (“Paper Planes”) Chris Brown (“Look At Me Now”) and Beyoncé (“Run The World (Girls)”). But his real claim to fame is as dance music’s trailblazer-in-chief, having been instrumental in breaking sounds like Baltimore club, UK grime, Brazilian baile funk and Angolan kuduru to audiences outside their respective strongholds. Boima “Chief Boima” Tucker has been a key movement-person in his own right, carving a niche for himself at the crosshairs of African and African-American music with his DJ sets, remixes and documentation of DJ-driven culture of every nation through his contributions to the Ghetto Bassquake blog.
Their interaction, appropriate to the digital eco-system that sustains tropical bass, started with a twitter beef. Scratch that. It started with “Global Genre Accumulation,” a thoughtful piece that Boima wrote on the Africa Is A Country blog, which referenced a twitter beef between Diplo and New York DJ Venus X Iceberg. Venus--in the course of an ongoing flame war--charged Diplo of recording her set at a Ghe20 G0th1k party and told him “ur the new Columbus” and “U CANT HIDE BEHIND POSTMODERNISM ANYMORE. ITS TIME TO PUT AN END TO YOUR REIGN OF TERROR WHITEBOY” ...among many, many other things. (There is a pretty comprehensive record of that conversation as well as statements from both Venus and Diplo over here). It’s important to note that the main focus of Boima’s piece was a DJ Mag list of top DJs that, he argued persuasively, reflected a Eurocentric and elitist worldview. Diplo was not on the list. But Boima did use him as an example of a DJ with elite, globetrotting access and mentioned the Venus incident—something Diplo (understandably) took objection to.
Which is where Okayafrica comes in. Having pointed followers of @okayafrica to Boima’s essay, we came under some twitter-fire from Diplo ourselves. That minor outbreak of beef (veal, really) created, however, the opportunity for a more um, fruitful dialogue. Since I consider Boima a friend and have had the chance to build/interview with Wes on a number of occasions, I took the whole thing as an excellent excuse to get them to sit down with each other, air out their differences—and more importantly, go pretty deep on the issues at stake in the current globalization of underground music, which parallels economic globalization in ways that are both powerful and sometimes troubling.
What follows is a record of that meeting, which took place in Diplo’s Manhattan hotel room late last year. Dive in—and for further assigned reading check Boima’s set at Spoek Mathambo’s release party in New York tonight, come to the roundtable discussion on Tropical Music that DJ Rekha and I are moderating tomorrow afternoon at the Experience Music Project pop conference (2:15-3:345pm Friday 3/23, featuring Boima, Venus X Iceberg and tropical music scholars Wayne Marshal and Erin MacLeod) or if you’re in Miami catch Diplo with AraabMuzik at the Mad Decent block party.
STATS: Okay, I want a good, clean fight please. Wes, in your own words, can you identify what you didn’t like [about the way you were portrayed in Boima’s piece]?
Diplo: For me, I love when people write about whatever work I’m doing, even if it’s critical…But the one thing I didn’t like about your particular article [addressing Boima], that was kind of center point for your whole argument, is that I was recording Venus’s set, which is something that she said…[but] which for me is just ridiculous. Like if we’re all DJ’s I don’t understand how someone could think I could record their set.
I was always friends with Venus, from the very beginning, until one day she just twisted on me. We were friends--we played the block party together, with Maluca, two years ago. It was a cool vibe, and that was the first time I met her. We actually portrayed Ghe20 G0th1k on our site, on Mad Decent. Paul Devro’s really good friends with her…and I’m still really good friends with Total Freedom. We’re huge fans of his, we post his mixes all the time, so I was always cool with these kids.
Boima: One thing I wanted to say, just to clear up, I know you felt attacked in my piece, but I don’t really feel like I was attacking you specifically. I know I used you as an example, and that’s because of your visibility. Because for a lot of up and coming DJs you set the standard of how to go about this thing. Even more problematic than you are people who are less successful, recreating these things without even thinking about them, I don’t know if you see it but the whole soundcloud scene…you have all these people who are just like, Yo: cumbia, bass, whatever--they just sample a bunch of stuff completely out of context. On both ends we have to try to set the standard for people that we’re working with, and for people who are following us.
Diplo: Well, the most important thing is, I want you guys to have a real precise perception of what I do, and how I make my money, and how I affect people’s lives, and how I represent people. Because it’s really important.
I went to school and Temple University, for anthropology and film. And I worked with this guy Jay Ruby, he was like one of the main ethnographic filmmakers from Temple, and I hated this guy so much! He wrote a book, about the ethics of representation? His whole thesis was like, as an old 50-something white guy, he can only represent his culture. He was making Caribbean documentaries and documentaries about France for years and years, and at one point he denounced the whole thing, and shook up the world of ethnographic cinema because he said he could only represent people like him. I thought it was a valid point. In some ways, I agree with him. But in the world we live in now…it’s not the same world they had when they made Nanook of the North. Like, everybody’s connected now. I go all over the world, I mean I’m going to Cambodia and Indonesia and I’m producing records with these kids now, and they’re better than me. Everywhere I go, there’s not this world of exoticism that you guys think exist. It’s not this weird world where I’m going to tribal places and taking photos and collecting music.
Diplo is steamed.
STATS: But even though there’s all this freedom of exchange, that DJ list still reflects that old world model of some European capital being the center of culture. Take (Lisbon kuduro group) Buraka Som Sistema--they have access that people from Angola don’t. I mean it’s not their fault, they make great music and they try to put a light on Znobia or other Angolan artists…but still it’s recreated, somehow.
Diplo: I mean nobody in Africa reads Mixmag [actually DJ Mag-ed], like maybe a few DJs in Johannesburg. It’s like voting in America, who goes to vote in the polls in November? It’s like old retirees, it’s misrepresented. I’m not even on that list. The people who vote for that are Northern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, like American’s don’t even vote for that list.
Boima: Well, that list is obviously problematic, off top. What I was trying to draw it into, is--like you said, there’s this world with a little more grey area, like, Yo the internet has freed up all this information, you don’t really have to travel to access it. I don’t want you to think that I don’t travel as well, I worked with musicians in Liberia myself. But the point is there’s still a politics involved in our scene.
Diplo: Can we put a name to this scene we’re talking about?
Boima: It’s not a name, it’s a concept, right? It’s not-the-top-100 Ibiza or Pacha, even Johan (of Radioclit and The Very Best) is producing under the name We Don’t Belong in Pacha. There’s this conscious, against-the-grain of that old school way of thinking. But what I’m saying is that even amongst all of us, even amongst my homies here in New York, there are separations between us that still exist structurally. Yeah we can go around the world and get similar experiences in New York, Dubai wherever. The thing that people don’t really draw attention to is the fact that folks in Cambodia can’t really get visas to come here, and don’t have the same amount of mobility as we do.
I guess I should mention that my background interest is in development. I’m in that kind of field--went to school for it--to figure out as a DJ, what’s really happening in the world. So that whatever my contribution is, I can start to tackle some of these inequalities that exist.
STATS: But even where those disparities exist--don’t you think that what Wes is doing frees it up more? Don’t you think trying to cross those lines, as people hear the music more…does that contribute to the disparity?
Boima: I think there’s a role to play in this introduction, normalizing or mainstreaming ideas of foreign-ness. So, from the perspective of Africa: in the 80’s Africa was Eddie Murphy in Coming To America. Now we’re in an era where Africans can be more mainstream-accepted, maybe a D’Banj can be looked at as fitting into this American sense of normalcy. But it’s not really challenging the status quo, the US is still a dominant force culturally.
STATS: Diplo, of all these different scenes that you have championed and taken inspiration from--you said Brazil was a big moment for you, a turning point, but there’s been tons of others, kuduro etc.--that you have taken inspiration from and tried to a shine light on. How do you look at that in practical terms?
Diplo: The most important thing for me in my career right now, to help these other genres that I’m promoting, is to stay relevant. On a level where I can produce artists in America like Usher and Chris Brown, that’s what makes people even interested in what I’m doing on a mainstream level. And if I can do that, I can do other things on the side--like run Mad Decent, which is pretty much a money pit. I don’t know if you know any of my indie labels, but we put in probably $40,000 a year just in the artists I want to promote. But I can take a couple gigs in the week and then put that into Mad Decent. For me it’s more important to have this label running, because without it, I’m just another DJ doing anything. It’s like a dime a dozen out there.
Sometimes I make records I don’t even like. I’m working on some pop artists, like I’m not even that excited about the Beyoncé record. I didn’t have full control of those records, but this is stuff that helps me parlay into different things. I’m on a path that I want to take advantage of, so I can also go this direction if I want to, but I can’t control what the audience wants to hear. I don’t get gigs doing kuduro or baile funk. But I will have those guys play at our Mad Decent parties, or I will have them release records on Mad Decent, or even give away their records, and put their mixtapes up, whatever it takes, because I have the access to do that.
But if I just did that as a full time job, I’d be broke as fuck. I’d be homeless, no one would even check my website. But I still find it very important to work with people and develop shit like that. For instance, Heaps Decent, where I was the administrator of this program--I wish I could do more things like that in America.
STATS: Tell us about Heaps Decent.
Diplo: Heaps Decent is a non-profit organization we have in Australia, we do workshops with kids. For me, I get a lot of sponsorship for shit--like let’s say Apple computers, or Ableton Live, where I only need one to do my shit--so if I can, I parlay these experiences to get more equipment for people who need it. The first time we did Heaps Decent 4 years ago, I got Apple to give us twenty computers, I got Ableton Live to give us a bunch of serial numbers, I got a bunch of USB keys. I was really influenced by this guy Morganics, who was doing really cool stuff in the outback, and I said: Look, I wanna do more rap music with these kids. So I brought the computers out there and gave them to my friend Andrew Levins and Nina “Las Vegas” is her nickname, they were the guys who helped me organize it, because they were the promoters for my shows in Australia four years ago. And we went way up in the north and did workshops up there. The government sponsored the plane trip, which was pretty expensive. I did a week of workshops, talking to them about making music, left everything there.
Like, people aren’t doing these things, it’s hard fucking work! I try my best with things like that, and still make records people care about, to help expose people to new music. So I’m an easy target, because I’m involved in music that’s not 100% what I’m from, but at the same time, I try my best to negotiate this process, and to make everything collaborative, and to make everybody aware of what’s going on. So I don’t feel any responsibility to any artist, but sometimes if I can do things for people, I definitely put my hand out there and open doors however I can.
STATS: What’s the collaborative process like for Major Lazer?
Diplo: Major Lazer is an interesting project because the first record was like recording dub plates. I went to Jamaica and I would pay $1,000 for a vocal, that’s an average price, you get an easy one-sheet deal—when we first did those deals, our label Interscope wasn’t happy with them, so I’d go back there and negotiate again, and it became very difficult. One person who definitely benefited from this project is Vybz Kartel who was [credited as] a writer on like, everything. He wrote on different beats of mine, he became a writer on “Pon De Floor,” he was on the Beyoncé credit. I think “Pon De Floor” probably has garnered more money for Vybz Kartel than any reggae record in the last ten years. But I still don’t believe he even collects all his royalties. There’s no infrastructure; he fires a manager every two months, or they end up going missing.
That’s one particular instance with Vybz Kartel. Another one that’s really cool is Mr. Vegas, but I had a really hard time negotiating that track because we sampled that whole record from “Barbwire” (by Nora Dean). Which is a Jamaican record, but it’s actually a remake of a Curtis Mayfield record, and Curtis Mayfield’s widow is like the craziest non-license person in the world. She’s got all of the publishing and negotiating with him (Vegas) was impossible, he didn’t understand the whole idea of us trying to legalize the sample.
STATS: So, even if you have the paperwork right on your side, is it going to make a difference on the Jamaican side?
Diplo: Even with [the deals we did], everybody’s getting 50% of the writing deal. I don’t buy vocals from people, everybody on there is a writer. It’s kind of hard to negotiate records when it’s like five writers, but that’s what the lawyers have to do, that’s what we pay them for. For me, everybody gets the writing credit for sure, but Jamaicans--I feel like--don’t collect their royalties, some of them don’t have publishing deals still. [Reggae labels] VP and Greensleeves have been really great. People always complain about them, but they want to put their artists on Major Lazer records, they know these records can promote them further and further, so it’s been real easy getting contracts with them--like Elephant Man for instance has been easy.
STATS: But there’s still this gap where, even though Caribbean music drives a lot of inspiration in the mainstream and makes somebody a lot of money…it’s very seldom that the originator in Jamaica and the person selling a million records are the same person. As a general question for both of you who work in this sphere—and I’ll include myself--how can we make it better? How do we negotiate that gap that exists between the market and the people that are inspiring that stuff?
DIPLO: One thing is…a lot of them are getting a lot more savvy. Like Mr. Lex for instance, I feel like we jumpstarted his career with “Hold The Line.” He started to tour a lot on that single in Europe. In Jamaica there’s no sense of two to three months ahead, it’s always about the next weekend, it’s always been like that, even in Brazil, there’s not a lot of infrastructure to teach people how to make money on music, it pretty much goes show to show, that’s how people make their money. Major Lazer; we sold less records than our advance was worth, we made all our money on our shows and when we can we bring artists with us. We did two or three shows with Mr. Lex here in New York. But even visas for Jamaican guys is kind of difficult. Especially England; Vybz Kartel can’t go there, Beenie Man can’t go there, the issue of homophobia was a big problem. I remember when he first came out and Spin Magazine gave us like 2 out of 10 because we even featured Elephant Man. And he was homophobic, so the article was just about homophobia in dancehall, which is like…we have nothing to do with that.
Boima: But there’s kind of a responsibility to speak to that at the same time. You’re a vessel that carries this, and you recognize that Spin’s view on it is problematic, because they’re taking it out of context. You feel like you need Spin to promote the album, but are there ways to go against what Spin is doing?
STATS: Well, before we even delve into the issue of homophobia, I want to ask you (Boima) the same question: As you lay it out in your piece, there’s this recreation of the global economic system in our little DJ world. What, in your mind, is a solution? What is the best way to bridge that gap?
Boima: Best way, I can’t say. It’s definitely a case-by-case basis, because there are differences between what the structural inequalities are. I can speak about the Liberia project that I worked on, specifically. I’m in a different realm than Wes in some ways because…I can concentrate and make my focus on coming up with ways to create institutional change within the local scene. That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in, the kind of things I’m trying to work on; work with the artists individually where they have absolutely no industry in this small scene. And maybe that’s a luxury that I have... because I don’t have the kind of audience where there’s a responsibility to create all the time or do this that or the other thing.
Diplo: I mean [for me] you can’t just do crazy ideas, you have to be able to market them as well, or you’re just wasting your time. I feel like I’m really good at marketing music. I have to do these things I don’t like, that I’m not that excited about, but for me it’s important not to do this all for nothing. It’s important to reach people, so that’s why I’m visible and I am an easy target but at least I’m aware of the world I’m living in and I try my best to try to be a person that’s less target-able.
Boima: That’s the thing, it’s not about you as a target, per se, it’s more what you’re talking about with these licensing issues--structural issues in Jamaica and all that stuff. That’s what I’m interested in challenging.
STATS: OK, Boima I want to put you on the spot a little, too—in your piece, the only thing you lay out as a constructive option—as opposed to a critique--was something to the effect of ‘allowing specific communities to collectively capitalize’ on their creative products. Isn’t that sort of like saying, Only Italian people should profit from pizza?
We want a good, clean fight. Now let's shake hands.
Boima: I mean…it’s the power relationship of the community. If it’s the gay community, you have these situations where people who are mainstream can get down to like a vogue tune…but still a tranny can’t walk down the street and feel comfortable, or feel safe. Even this idea of underground is problematic. That keeps you out of the mainstream, that does separate you as outside, as other. The reality is that we live in this internet age where it is accessible and really, gay parties aren’t illegal like they were in the ‘70’s. Underground used to be an issue of, We can’t do this, it’s not legal to congregate. Now it’s an issue of, Everybody can legally congregate where they want, so let’s create these safe spaces for that to happen and everybody can come enjoy it, let’s not separate it out as this thing. Like if somebody’s using [Masters At Work house classic which is a staple of the gay vogue house scene] “The Ha Dance,” let’s ground it in the context and also have solidarity with that context.
STATS: But to ensure that solidarity by putting in place a structure where only gay people can sample “The Ha Dance”—or to bring it back to your experience in Liberia, only someone from Liberia can profit on Liberian music--seems sort of counter-progressive to me…
Boima: Well that’s not exactly what I’m trying to say. I’ll send you the draft of a piece I’m working on, but in it I talk about how I struggle with this situation where I have to put this comp [of Liberian music] together and market it, specifically for this crowd in the US that I think is going to dig it, which is this global bass scene or whatever we call it. And those are the people who have been hitting me up--but also the [West African] diaspora has been hitting me up. So it’s like, Where am I consciously fitting this album into? And addressing these issues within Liberia, where--I’m sure similar to Brazil--the wealthy folks didn’t really dig what was happening in the hood…
Diplo: Well in Brazil, for example, I feel like I did have an impact on the way Brazil perceived baile funk music, which is weird. It was a strictly Rio thing, and now 5 years later, it’s changed. I think people saw baile funk was getting played by European audiences, and even in Brazil, the stereotypes broke down and people were like, I wanna fuck with this, and girls were like, I wanna dance like this. I see the change of people just seeing, If Europeans like this…All Latin America has this Euro-centric upper crust that feels like they’re Europeans still, still on this colonial mindset.
Boima: But we can fight them, though.
Diplo: We can fight them, but I feel like the kids in the global bass scene, they like music that’s the best.
Boima: They also chase what’s hot. Like how many young producers on soundcloud are doing baile funk tracks any more? or even Baltimore, that used to be the hot shit, and there’s this problematic thing where people are just chasing the latest trend.
Diplo: Definitely a problem.
Boima: So how do we start to change that culture, how do we recognize that, Yo, at the end of the day, people from Baltimore are still from Baltimore and Africans are still Africans and gay folks are still gay folks…
Diplo: Everything’s flash in the pan, I see it like crazy. But, if it’s that great, it’ll stick around, man. I can’t control the internet, the hyper culture that we have, where everything’s being turned over so quickly.
Boima: My question is, let’s say you’re putting your efforts to break something in the mainstream, but if the mainstream is so flash in the pan, what’s the point? As far as the purpose of breaking down barriers, trying to create a better equal situation, globally, what good is chasing the mainstream light? I know it adds some exposure, but if it’s a flavor of the day type thing, how can we change that into substantial change? Instead of just, Oh, now we know about “The Ha Dance?” And then next week something different?